How to create a fantastic work culture: “Great work culture is a very fragile thing” with Ryan Andal and Chaya Weiner

We do our best to mitigate turnover by promoting a healthy work culture. But business leaders need to understand that great work culture is a very fragile thing. If you’re not consistently working to maintain and improve work culture, happiness in the workplace can very easily slip away. Having one unhappy person can poison the […]

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We do our best to mitigate turnover by promoting a healthy work culture. But business leaders need to understand that great work culture is a very fragile thing. If you’re not consistently working to maintain and improve work culture, happiness in the workplace can very easily slip away. Having one unhappy person can poison the well and negatively affect culture company wide. Problems, whether the fault of individuals or the company, need to be discussed and addressed openly.

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Andal. Ryan is the president and co-founder of two-time Emmy® Award-winning Secret Location — an Entertainment One Company, a content and technology studio for emerging platforms that partners with major VR publishers including The New York Times and AMC. In just eight years, Ryan has helped grow Secret Location from a small five-person company to a creative production studio with a staff of about 80 and offices in both Toronto and Los Angeles. Ryan has for many years led efforts across technical, strategical, financial, and sales activities for Secret Location. He has recently been focusing on innovation in the virtual reality space, creating new technology that provides solutions to issues surrounding content deficits and platform distribution, as well as testing new methods to enhance immersion and children’s learning.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve been very fortunate as my career has been a series of forceful pushes by the people around me. I never had any natural desires to be an entrepreneur, but my two good friends out of college pushed me into starting a company with them. I wasn’t specifically passionate about entertainment, but our company Secret Location naturally fell into that industry as a result of one of my co-founder’s background and the generous funding incentives in Canada.

After eight fantastic years of building and growing Secret Location with my two business partners, I suddenly tasked with steering this ship without any co-captains after a series of varying circumstances. Since then, it’s largely been a journey of learning on the job.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

One of the main factors that attributed to unhappiness at our workplace in the past is a lack of work-life balance. If you forgive the “buzzy” term, I honestly believe prioritizing a healthy balance between your work and personal lives is one of the most important contributors to happiness. The idea that it’s important to have work-life balance isn’t something that you just say, it actually gets tested quite often through the normal course of business. One line in an HR manual isn’t going to make a difference, the decisions that people, particularly business leaders, make reflect how seriously your company pushes the idea. If you see people staying late, ask why. Make sure everyone understands that it’s not okay.

The other major factor is disconnection. When people don’t understand the company’s vision and mission, or don’t see a connection between what they do and furthering that vision or mission, they become disengaged. This is easily fixed through messaging. Business leaders often take for granted the information that they have about how a company works, what the vision is, and what the goals are, particularly if they’ve had a hand in crafting them. Presenting that messaging, then repeating that messaging, can be one of the most effective ways to allow people to strike those connections between what they do on a day-to-day basis and how it relates to where the company is going.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Turnover in a high skill business is extremely expensive and negatively impacts productivity. So, we do our best to mitigate turnover by promoting a healthy work culture. But business leaders need to understand that great work culture is a very fragile thing. If you’re not consistently working to maintain and improve work culture, happiness in the workplace can very easily slip away. Having one unhappy person can poison the well and negatively affect culture company wide. Problems, whether the fault of individuals or the company, need to be discussed and addressed openly.

I learned this lesson firsthand as we started our company and were able to maintain a great culture. At first, we were a small, young, and nimble team. We worked long hours, we celebrated our successes, we mourned our failures, but we did everything together. As we grew, that culture eventually became unsustainable. Eighty people can’t go to lunch together. The factors that contribute to employee happiness will change at key growth milestones. If you’re not nimble enough to respond to those, it’s easy for that initially great culture you’ve built to deteriorate.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

  • Share everything. Be transparent and open to everyone you work with. The idea that people need to be sheltered from information is ridiculous.
  • Involve people in the decision-making process. Bring people along for the ride, even if you must explain the story from the beginning.
  • My old business partner regularly ran a logo design workshop at his alma mater. He always led the workshop with a familiar horror story for many designers, wherein he conducted a lengthy and iterative logo design process involving all the key stakeholders, only to have the president of the company show his wife who, of course, didn’t like it. The takeaway here is if you bring everyone along for the journey, then everyone inherently understands all the decisions that were made that went into the final product. But for something as subjective as design, anyone outside that process who hasn’t had the benefit of understanding the rationale can completely derail the process.
  • Promote distributed decision making
  • I’ve often found the best way to promote distributed decision making is by distributing ownership of the budget. It’s the easiest way to allow for decision making on a macro level. Every business leader needs to make a high volume of decisions throughout the course of the day. Should we hire this person? Should we buy new computers? Should we go to this conference? Most of the day-to-day questions and decisions can funnel downward if people have a macro understanding of their divisional budget.
  • Learn to better understand how your position can affect the way people interact with you
  • I’ve learned to speak last in meetings. The psychology of the organizational hierarchy, even for the humblest of leaders, is such that anyone would feel uncomfortable challenging their superior. I’ve messaged often to my staff to view my opinions and ideas on equal footing, but what’s often easier is to just speak last. That way if your opinion happens to be offered up by someone else, then you needn’t speak at all.
  • Hire people smarter than you and give them opportunities to be better than you.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

Work shouldn’t be about survival, it should be a choice. Families living paycheck to paycheck for survival open themselves up to being taken advantage of. The balance of power between employee and employer isn’t going to be naturally sorted out. Where once upon a time, unions were the answer that allowed the workforce to rebalance itself, over the years they have become less and less effectual.

While solutions like Universal Basic Income have been touted as a silver bullet solution, I don’t believe it’s just that simple. But, I do believe that seriously looking at how something that bold could affect our society is needed.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

As I mentioned, I never had any desires or plans to be an entrepreneur. It sort of fell into my lap through a series of fortuitous events. I got into programming and technology because of my brother who was working on his computer science degree. I got roped into starting a company with my two friends from college, because they needed a programmer. And I began leading the company as a result of my two business partners leaving post-acquisition. Not to take away from any of the hard work, but I’ve been gifted a lot along my journey and I do believe I’ve been lucky to have been pushed in various ways by various people.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

To be honest, I’ve struggled personally with the fact that I work in the entertainment industry. I believe that if I were to focus my energies on bringing goodness, I likely would not be working in this industry. One of my peers, someone I believe to be a very charitable individual, once told me that you don’t need to think about bringing goodness into the world through some grand gesture. It often starts very small. For him it was the desire to get his kids involved in charitable work, so they chose a cause and put in the time, and it grew from there.

I genuinely believe that we have an amazing work culture, and that brings positivity into the lives of those around them. A year ago, we ran a hackathon. Through the course of the week-long hackathon, the father of one of the participants passed away after a long battle with cancer. The winning team ended up donating their winnings to a cancer charity. It’s selfless gestures like this that inspired us to replace the money that we would normally spend on giving client gifts during the holiday season to instead making donations on their behalf to two local charities.

Beyond the small circle of people I’m able to affect, I still fantasize about a grander gesture. But for now, I’m trying to do small things.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Everything is a learn-able skill.”

If you take the highly contentious hype around Malcolm Gladwell popularizing the idea of taking 10,000 hours of focused practice to become an expert, the key takeaway for me is that everything is a learn-able skill.

It’s true that many people will find themselves naturally better at acquiring some skills over others, so I don’t negate natural talent, but my own business practices have been cultivated around the idea that everything is a learn-able skill.

I created a brainstorm process for our company around the understanding that a great idea can come from anyone, and that different people generate ideas in different ways from one another. But these core tenets of how I structured the brainstorm process derive from my thinking that everything is a learn-able skill.

In fact, my own confidence in the skills that I have, or the skills that I wish to attain, comes from this very idea. I am, by my own admission, not great at many things. Being an introvert, networking at a conference with a room full of strangers is a highly uncomfortable scenario for me that takes a lot of my energy away. And I’m comfortable knowing that no matter how much I do it, I’m not putting in any focused practice in order to improve my ability to network. Whereas public speaking is a skill I deliberately practiced in order to get better.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.

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